‘The Atomic Legion:’ Advance Hardcover Review

The Atomic Legion is a tale from a bygone era, and that is exactly what its creators, writer Mike Richardson and artist Bruce Zick, are going for; a tale from yesterday transported to the world of today, and to the readers of now.  Told from the perspective of Robby, a young orphan who wishes superheroes still existed like they did in the thirties and forties, we are propelled on a journey through space and time, as Robby suddenly finds himself in a secret, scientific compound, under the care of The Professor and his Atomic Legion, a gathering of the most brilliant, powerful, misunderstood, and forgotten heroes culled and preserved from the past.  The Professor, who is a loose representation of Albert Einstein, has provided a sanctuary for these heroic anomalies, so that they can continue serving humanity and exist in peace, without fear of prejudice or judgment from the outside world.  One of the strongest jokes in the book is how so many of these heroes were born out of freak accidents, much like the majority of the superheroes from the thirties and forties, along with the running joke of Tomorrow Man trying to find the right words to use as his call to action.

There are a plethora of fantastic characters, all fantastically realized through Bruce Zick’s art.  Zick has illustrated numerous young adult and children’s graphic novels, as well as comics for Marvel, and he works as a concept artist for numerous major animation studios, so he is the perfect candidate to bring Richardson’s all-ages book to life.  Richardson, perhaps best known as the President and Publisher of Dark Horse Comics, has written quite a few books himself, including 47 Ronin, with art by Stan Sakai, and non-fiction treats such as Blast Off!: Rockets, Robots,Ray Guns, and Rarities from the Golden Age of Space Toys, so it is obvious that his heart is behind this story.  Drawing from famous characters such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, to lesser-known ones such as The Shadow and The Phantom Stranger, to pop-culture classics like King Kong and Frankenstein, Richardson creates a cavalcade of heroes out of the past, and all with his own unique spin.

The Atomic Legion is pure pulp, filled with super science, astounding vehicles, and incredible gadgets that are capable of almost anything.  It unfolds like a Saturday morning serial, and some of the dialogue is in the straightforward style of those serials, which I like to think is intentional.  There are some similarities to Kurt Busiek’s Astro City and Warren Ellis’ Planetary in its ideas, but this book is more broad, dealing more in Flash! Bang! Pow! moments and in relaying important lessons that kids could grab on to, all the while identifying with Robby and his desire to be a hero.  That being said, Richardson does not leave his adults out in the cold.  There are enough clever ideas and classic character references, and he pays homage to the rich sci-fi legacy of the thirties and forties, especially once the villain Dr. Rue Morgue surfaces.  Not to mention the spectacular interstitials by Zick, which range from various heroes’ first appearances in comic books to a rogues gallery of outrageous villains, all excellently expanding upon the lore of The Atomic Legion.  I found myself hoping that the nefarious Pyramid King would show up in this book, but perhaps he will make an appearance in future Atomic Legion adventures.  The locations are lush and packed with retro science fiction designs, and Zick gives us a multitude of full-page spreads and splash pages that pay tribute to the size and scope of the story and surroundings.  The character designs are very stylized, and while I was not particularly floored by the look of Robby or The Professor, other characters were handled with a flair and panache that wonderfully echoed the era in which they originally came to be, such as The Shade, The Wisp, and Metal Man.

As a whole, The Atomic Legion is an epic adventure into the science fiction of the past, all seen through the eyes of a young boy who longs to find his place in the world, and to be a part of something great.  The themes that Richardson and Zick portray through the characters and their situations will resonate with younger readers and remind adults how effective simplicity and moral storytelling can be sometimes.  While to me the climax felt rushed and everything came together a bit too perfectly in the end, I imagine that back in the days of the Saturday morning serial, those are the kind of resolutions you would see, and would love.  There is an innocence in The Atomic Legion that is hard to come by these days, and for that Richardson and Zick are to be commended.  I agree with Robby that the world is a better place with superheroes, as well as with writers and artists who aren’t afraid to work in earnest nostalgia to create a book that, just like the radio dramas of the past, a family can gather round and together share in the joy and adventure of storytelling.

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